Sound issues in a perfection focussed society

Christopher East, from BCS Internet Specialist Group, discusses sound issues in a perfection obsessed multi-media society.

As more and more people become involved with broadcasting at a hobbyist and pre-professional level, it seems inevitable that issues will occur of all sorts. From sound being muffled to a participant’s internet connection causing a feedback loop which spoils the event for all of the other participants.

However, if you are producing or stage managing the broadcast/recording, and are finding yourself struggling to deal with problems of this nature, then there are some very simple and easy steps that you can perform to ensure that any issues are ironed out before the broadcast or recording takes place.

Firstly, if you are involved in something where one or more of your participants are remotely connecting via any medium, then talk to each one separately to identify the source of any issues. Sometimes a problem which does not appear to be too bad during a dry run, and does not affect any recordings or broadcastings made during a dry run, can be catastrophic when the main event takes place.

Go through each of the participants who are connecting remotely individually, identify how they are connecting and run broadband speed tests to ensure that their internet connection is simply unable to cope with the rather heavyset load which a recording or broadcasting event will be placing it under. If you are using video conferencing systems, then a broadband connection for each of the participants of at least 12mbps should be considered the absolute minimum. Remember, if each participant is providing their own slides and are playing these directly over their connection, then it is the same as having a video call with that person.

So 12mbps should be considered the absolute minimum for doing anything of this nature. Ensuring that this requirement is met, along with checking during a dry run that no sound issues occur will help to ensure that you achieve a good quality recording or broadcast first time, every time. If there are any doubts about the quality of an individual’s internet connection, regardless of their location, then either try to find an alternative location, which does match that minimum 12mbps connection speed, or be willing to drop them out if you do not want your event to be spoilt by horrible glitching and sound issues.

I experienced this recently with a broadcast where one participant had been experiencing issues which appeared to be relatively minor during the multiple attempts, and because of this participants insistence that they be in control of various easily redistributable aspects throughout their part of this particular broadcast, their internet connection, (which maxed out at a rather normal 9.35mbps, which was kindly provided by their IT department), caused a sound issue which many of you will have heard on major broadcast networks such as the BBC or BskyB when someone who is using a piece of video chat software to call into the network without a fast enough internet connection.

However, despite this problem, which had been experienced the previous day, the participant had been eager to push forward, despite calls to the contrary on my part, and it ended up making the audio significantly more difficult to understand than it needed to be.

As a result of this, the participant then proceeded to try and withdraw their consent for the material to be used, something which was incredibly difficult to do given that the event had gone out live, with their issues being plain for all to see/hear.

The only way around this was to cut the participant out completely, and then, at a later stage, decide what to do regarding their involvement in the wider project.

The other participants were able to have their sound cleared up without any issues, however, it quickly raised the issue of what to do when sub-par sound is encountered during a broadcast.

It is my opinion, that, as long as the sound is audible and the audience can be conferred that the sound can still be heard, (as happened in this case, where several external audience members clearly stated that they could hear the sound without too many difficulties) then I suggest strongly that you continue, and then, if necessary, re-record the whole thing afterwards once the offending source of sound issues has been eliminated completely.

As someone with over 14 years’ experience around things to do with broadcasting, I have seen my fair share of issues which do not seem to want to go away, and the choice you have to make is clear. Can the audience still understand enough of what is being said for the audience to be able to understand the points being made? If they cannot then it is, sadly, time to eliminate the connection which is causing the issue without delay.

However, if the audience can understand what is being said, and can understand the points being made, then carry on and, if required, re-record. The major news and network broadcasters throughout the world deal with this issue on a daily basis, and, to date, it has never hurt or injured the reputation of any individual or organisation, as technical problems occur when using systems which were not designed specifically to be used in the situation in which they are being encountered.

Many people will not be aware that almost all broadcasting systems run via open-source software, and very very few organisations and institutions pay extremely overvalued companies to provide the same software, (perhaps packaged with a different look, but performing the same functionality), based on the same open-source systems used by the major networks.

The reason they do this is simple. Fixing problems which are related to the software being used can be incredibly expensive if you are paying a single organisation to package, maintain and build software. On the other hand, a community of professionals working together on something for the greater good can see progress being made many times faster. This allows those organisations to be seen publically giving back to the very communities which innovate and tend to be behind the design and building of the initial versions of solutions that some organisations end up paying millions of dollars for, without equating the value which they will be losing out on by not interacting with the wider community of specialists and individuals who use the open-source systems on a daily basis.

If a software issue is causing the audio quality to drop, then getting an organisation you have paid several million dollars for the software to take responsibility for the issue can be almost impossible unless they have a vested interest in helping, for example, if the organisation is owned in part or wholly by the customer reporting an issue.

Whereas in the open-source community, getting someone to take responsibility for these issues is as simple as sending an email in almost every single case.

So, to conclude, as long as the person speaking can be heard, then it does not matter whether they can be heard perfectly. You do not generally give up on a phone call because you are straining to listen to what is being said by one person on the other side of the world, because you understand that the technology, whilst often very good, is reliant on more variables than could be easily counted and it only takes one of those variables to instigate something to go wrong.

What matters, in reality, is the expectation you have set for the quality of the recording or broadcast event you are doing. If the audio does not match up to that, then you will need to work very hard to find out who or what is causing the issue, and then resolve it by either changing equipment or unfortunately removing a disruptive participant from an event.

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This blog is brought to you by the members of the BCS Internet Specialist Group and allows you to harness their skills, expertise and knowledge. The internet is ubiquitous and has a major impact on our daily lives, at work, at home on the move. The associated risks and security concerns are real, but the magic and advantages of the internet are significant.

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